Note: This story was published on Dec. 6, 2019.
The oldest file on my computer is named “Vigil.” It’s my story of the vigil in Montreal the day after the Montreal Massacre, the name given to the event on December 6, 1989 when a young man entered a university engineering school, killed 14 women, injured many others, then shot himself, leaving a note declaring he hated feminists. I wrote the draft of Vigil by hand in a paper notebook, during the course of the next day as I travelled through Montreal to the vigil at the university and back home. Eventually I typed it up and digitized it, and the story’s been with me now for exactly 30 years.
Vigil is a record of what I saw and heard and my conversations with people around me that day. It is almost 7,000 words and honestly it makes sense only to me. When I woke up in my Montreal apartment that morning of December 7, 1989, I felt strange, like my head was in a bubble of air inside water, just under the surface of reality. It was well into 1990, after I had moved far away from my hometown of Montreal, that I broke through my air bubble and came to the surface. Fortunately that bubble feeling has not returned in the 30 years since. At some point during these past three decades I read that depression is anger turned inwards, and I named that bubble “my depression.”
Today in Fredericton, reflecting on the Montreal Massacre, I understand Vigil to be one story about how feminists respond to violence against women and attempts to control our bodies. Vigil records evidence in particular of three structures that remain part of that story today: the church, the news media, and the politicians.
When my mother became visibly pregnant in 1955, she had to leave her job because, I recall her telling me years later, the men in her office in Montreal did not want to have to look at pregnant women. It’s hard to believe today how things were for most women in the province of Quebec back then. When she told me that story I understood that those men, most of whom incidentally were engineers, preferred their office women to be unblemished. Thirty-four years later, when the young man killed the 14 women engineering students because he hated feminists, the Catholic church had much less control over our daily lives in Montreal but its tentacles still spread everywhere.
St. Joseph’s Oratory perches high on the north face of the mountain in the middle of the city, its dome visible for miles, beside the Université de Montréal. That evening of the vigil, I was standing at the edge of the gathering crowd, outside the glass entranceway to the university engineering school when the security guy guarding the door saw me writing in my notebook and let me inside to be with the journalists. When I left the building much later, only a few people were outside. I saw my friend Charlene, one of the vigil organizers, and asked her where the crowd had gone.
Charlene: They all went up to the Oratory.
me: What did they go up there for?
Charlene: No idea.
me: Did the truck with your sound equipment show up?
Charlene: No, but it didn’t matter anyway, because the speakers for the vigil got mixed up with the crowd that went up to the Oratory. I was talking into the megaphone when this gang of engineering students grabbed the megaphone and said we should have a silent vigil. A woman with them said: ‘This is not about violence against women, it’s about violence against people.’ Charlene pronounces it peeeepull.
Was I angry, my rage turned inward in my bubble, when I wrote that down 30 years ago? The killing of 14 women by a man who hated feminists shocked me. However I know now that what made me depressed or crazy or whatever was not the Massacre, it was what people were saying in the metro, in the shops, on the radio and TV, and from the church pulpits afterward: We should be silent and not “be political.” The Massacre was about a crazy person, not about violence against women, not about men trying to control us, our bodies, our selves.
The evening TV news that day was about the vigil. Watching, I wrote: The image is the inside of Saint Joseph’s Oratory. The reporter says that about 1,500 people walked up tonight to Saint Joseph’s to mourn the 14 women killed last night. She says the vigil participants in Saint Joseph’s did something to help themselves recover from the tragedy: ‘They lit candles and prayed.’
Candles and praying won’t protect us, I knew it then and am sure of it now.
Anger turned inward. If I mention Clinic 554 now, if I write that the Knights of Columbus and the other religious fundamentalists attempting to restrict our access to abortion services in New Brunswick have chosen to be part of the structure that supports violence against us, will readers think I’m still crazy? Some might but others will share my truth. This form of control of our bodies is linked to violence against women, and the denial of this fact is what enrages me as I reflect on the Montreal Massacre today.
Then there is the news media. After the security guard opened the door for me at the engineering school building that evening three decades ago, I went inside with all the journalists. I recognized Albert, from a while back at a student newspaper, and asked him what he was doing there.
Albert: I’m working for the Montreal Daily News now.
me: I’m interested in the feminist angle. Have you noticed at your paper a reluctance to cover it?
Albert: I certainly have. I was here at the Polytechnique at three o’clock this morning with other journalists from the Montreal Daily News when the police revealed the details of the killer’s letter, his hate of feminists. When we got back to the newsroom, we told our editor we wanted to write a story on the feminist angle. The editor said no.
Undoubtedly the news media has changed since 30 years ago, but by how much? Few stories published in the news media today analyze the ongoing efforts to control our bodies, by violence if necessary. The recent media stories about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report quickly disappeared. The stories of women abused and murdered by their partners are told as isolated incidents, without connecting them to the underlying systems that support this violence. How many of the news stories published about Clinic 554 and the lack of access to abortion services identify the larger systems of power involved? How many Clinic 554 stories mention that to work effectively, these systems of power need to control the bodies of women, trans and non-binary people?
Finally, the politicians. That evening 30 years ago when I was inside the engineering school, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was arriving by helicopter for the vigil.
At the base of the staircase, the journalists and cameras jostle for position. Albert says to me: “If I get close enough to Mulroney, I’m going to ask him: Do you have a message for the women of Canada?” He says something else but I can’t hear him because a murmur sweeps the lobby. The cameras switch on their lights, bathing the marble staircase in a harsh glare. Brian Mulroney, flanked by two officials, is descending. He stops on the second step from the bottom, faces the cameras, and starts to talk. I’m at the back of the pack and can’t hear him clearly. He speaks in a low, modulated tone. I move closer. Now he is saying: “It’s a great national tragedy.” Albert maneuvers to Brian’s right side. Albert asks: “Do you have a message for the women of Canada?” There is a pause. Brian looks at Albert and says: “No.” There is a pause. Brian turns left and exits through the glass doors.
Trevor Holder, Jeff Carr, Bill Oliver, Bruce Northrup. The paper Acadie Nouvelle reported that on October 10 this year, these four New Brunswick government MLAs participated in a public demonstration against abortion. Did the story mention that these four men have, by their actions, chosen to be complicit in a vast conspiracy to control our bodies? That the conspiracy is really a system of power, the patriarchy, that requires control of and violence against us to work effectively? No. Am I implying that now? Yes. These four are not the only ones in the Legislature who want to restrict access to abortion services in the province, there are many more among the 49 MLAs sitting there now as I write this.
These structures need to change, must change. By working together feminists are challenging patriarchy, colonialism, white supremacy and other systems that deny social justice. Working together includes politicians who speak up in the Legislature for reproductive justice. As I reflect on the Montreal Massacre 30 years later, I hope that other activists can see as I do the cracks in the structures of the churches, the news media, and the legislatures that can be widened for the light to shine in. By sharing our stories we will know today and on December 6 next year and the years after that we are not alone and there is still work to do.
Diversity within Engineering UNB will hold a Day of Remembrance Ceremony on the Fredericton campus today, Dec. 6, starting at 3pm. Facebook event here.
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op Editorial Board and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. From 1987 to 1989 she was Coordinator of the Women’s Centre at Concordia University in Montreal.